Lockdown saw three adults in my household working from home. As restrictions started to lift, we discussed a family holiday. As a freelancer, I can meet client commitments around holidays. I might work a little while I’m away, especially if a few minutes of my time can save a client an hour of theirs. My eldest son has a limited leave allowance. Understandably, he wants to save it for seeing university friends. ‘But’ I suggested ‘you work from home. We’ll book somewhere with Wi-Fi, and you can work wherever we’re staying.’
This got me thinking: if we can both work on a short break, how long, and how far could we travel and work at the same time? This led me to investigate the lives of digital nomads, who use a laptop and the Internet to make their living while travelling. From stories of the ups and downs of working nomads, I spotted five success factors.
1. Know how much money you need to earn
Be realistic about the costs of travel, accommodation and suitable insurance. Don’t base your costings on that ‘characterful’ hostel you stayed in when backpacking as a student. Sharing a room with four strangers, one of whom snores, and another who does unspeakable things in the night might be a standing joke if it’s for a couple of nights. If you live that way for a few weeks you’ll be too tired to fit in both sightseeing and work the next day. Travel costs will depend on how often you want to move, how you are going to travel, and what local journeys you plan. Include an allowance for emergencies (and for a ticket home).
2. Be clear what you going to do
Some would-be nomads expect to make their money as a travel blogger or YouTuber, assuming the money will roll in once they get travelling. Others hope to pick up work on freelancer websites. If you’re going to rely on building an income once you’re travelling, you’ll need extra savings to keep you going. The successful nomads have work lined up before they go. Is there something you do in your current job that is portable? If you’re the only person who knows how to produce those end of month graphs, or those clever animations for presentations, can your current employer package up work for you to do remotely?
My son has a steady job he already does remotely. Outside of lockdown, my work is split between face-to-face work and remote work, so I have a reliable portion of work I could carry on anywhere.
3. Decide when you going to work
Some digital nomads work a few days solid, then travel and see the sights. Others put in a few hours every day. Nomads who work on their home time zone, either late into the local night, or extremely early in the morning, must sleep while everyone around them is making a lot of noise. They admit, it’s difficult. Some clients might appreciate the time difference – for example, if they can send you work in the evening, and you’ve completed it before they log on the next morning. My son’s work involves a lot of calls to people around the world, so he’s already used to early morning or late evening calls. But a lot are London-centred, and he might balk at calls at 3am if he was working in Peru. It would be easier for me as I only have a couple of flexible contact points during the week, and I can do the rest of my work any time.
4. Work out where you will work
Some people like to work in a busy space, like a café. My son’s work involves lots of real-time calls, so the café environment or a shared office wouldn’t work for him. He might need larger accommodation he could use as a working space. My preference might be for a co-working space, or to seek out quiet, free options like libraries. We’d both need a laptop with the right balance of lightweight portability, robustness and a reasonable screen size. A separate mouse, keyboard and an adjustable laptop stand will allow us to work comfortably for longer. My Nexstand laptop stand will definitely be folded neatly in my hand luggage, ready to create a portable laptop desk wherever I work.
5. Decide how much work you need to do
How many hours a week do you need to work to match your budget and your client needs? This is where I win out over my son. He’s in his first job, so for financial reasons and to satisfy his employer he’d need to work full-time. For me, in two days a week I could cover my travelling budget and keep clients happy for my eventual return to full-time work. I’d have plenty of time for sightseeing.
A survey in 2019 by MBO Partners estimated 51% of digital nomads were over the age of 40. The researchers seemed surprised, but given the success factors above, they shouldn’t be. I might be better suited to be a digital nomad than my son. All that’s left is to decide where to go…
Bridget Leathley, thesaferchoice.co.uk is a freelance health and safety consultant, she is a Chartered member of IOSH as well as a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.
Bridget provides risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments. She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work. She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.